Today we look at an army officer and a teacher of fortifications, a Russian of French and Lithuanian descent. No, I haven’t gone crazy, as he has particular significance in the history of music, being both a composer and music critic, and one of the members of The Five, or the mighty handful. He is César Cui, Born on this day in 1835.
Born in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to a Roman-Catholic family, his French father had entered Russia as a member of Napoleon’s army in 1812 and settled in Vilnius upon their defeat and married a local woman. César grew up learning French, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian. Before finishing gymnasium (or school), he was sent to Saint Petersberg to prepare to enter the Chief Engineering School. He graduated from this in 1855, and after advanced studies at the Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy, he began his military career in 1857. He entered the military as an instructor in fortifications, teaching several members of the Imperial family including Nicolas II. He taught at three of the military academies in Saint Petersberg. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, he gained a frontline assignment due to his study of fortifications, and this proved quite important for his careeer. An expert on military fortifications, he attained the status of professor in 1880 and the rank of general in 1906.
However, in the west, he is best known for his “other” life, that resides in music. He received piano lessons in Vilnius, studying Chopin’s works, and at the age of 14 began composing little pieces. He managed to have some lessons in music theory before being sent to Saint Petersberg. In 1856, he met Mily Balakirev, and began to become more seriously involved in music. Balakirev was a dominant personality in what became known as The Five, also known as The mighty Handful. This was a group of composers who met in Saint Petersberg and aimed towards producing a specifically Russian kind of art music. The members included Balakirev, Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. All self-trained amateurs, they began forming in 1856 with Balakirev and Cui, with Borodin being the last to join in 1862.
As a composer, Cui wrote in almost all genres of the time, excepting the symphony and the symphonic powm. He contributed many art songs, with a few vocal duets and songs for children. He also wrote for piano and chamber groups, a few orchestral works, but his most significant contribution is his 15 operas of varying proportions. His works are not as nationalistic as the other members of the five, and his operas do not display a strong attraction to Russian sources (apart from those by the poet Pushkin). In some works you can detect overt attempts at Russian “folk” musical style, and many other stylistic curiosities associated with Russian art music, but his style is more often compared to Schumann and French composers such as Gounod.
Today we have three movements from Cui’s suite “À Argenteau” performed by Phillip Sear. First, the second movement “Dolce far Niente”, followed by the fifth movement “Serenade” and finally the eighth movement “At the Chapel”